The yellow sands of the Shandan Desert stretched from horizon to horizon, desolate and bleak. The hot, arid wind seemed always from the south, sometimes easing the grains of sand across the dunes, but more often hurling them with enough force to feel like tiny pins pricking incessantly at any exposed skin.
Five figures moved through the nothingness that surrounded them. The three mules they led forged along, heads lowered, not even willing to voice protest with the granules blowing so abundant. Each beast bore supplies and equipment for the task the men had planned, and each bundle had gray and brown hides covering them.
The lead man, wrapped in dingy, white robes adorned with dull red accents, abruptly stopped and fell to his knees, then laid his hands to the scorching ground feeling for the source of life trickling far below the surface. As he clenched the granules in his fists, another approached and spoke the first words any had uttered in days.
“Tambur, is this the place?” They had been traveling due east for two weeks, waiting for some sign to indicate they had completed their search.
Tambur looked at his brother, nodding once to confirm. His magic had not all been taken away by the powers of the Red Griffin. His senses grew more acute the farther he got from the evil enchantments surrounding the Western Lands.
“Yes, my brother. I sense it.” His eyes still closed, Tambur held out his hand to receive a wooden spade. The three younger men, who had been waiting away from them, rushed forward to help begin the digging.
“We must scoop out the sand twenty feet wide and eight feet down,” Tambur told them, his excitement evident in his near breathless words. “There, we shall hit the base clay. Four feet under that should reveal evidence of the stream running below. Let us work now.”
The five men began stabbing into the loose earth, tossing the detritus high to let the wind take away. At the setting of the sun, they had reached the firmament the elder had described, dug a shaft for the well, then rimmed the top with a wall of its own and a slanted roof to protect it from the wind-blown sand. All made from the clay floor they had unearthed.
They pitched camp in the center of the pit and made a small fire to cook their rations.
What little discussion they had centered around the life they wished to create in the middle of the surrounding bareness. Tambur, along with his younger brother Rangor, had escaped persecution by the tyrant wizard Red Griffin a month earlier. Tambur’s wife Shelar, heavy with their first child, agreed to care of Vicanta, wife of Rangor and mother to Thelis, Aqom and Kentur.
The quintet of men set off ahead of the women after they made a safe distance, leaving them protected by several other families who had fled with them.
Exhausted from the day’s travel, followed by the work accomplished, they soon rolled out their pallets and fell to sleep.
By sunrise the next morning, they had stored their bed rolls and were finishing a small meal to break the nightly fast. They began their tasks in silence, each knowing what needed done. With coördinated efforts, the work progressed rapidly.
The youngest two retrieved the cutting implements and began slicing the firm, red clay into rectangular bricks. Their brother and father worked at fabricating the border wall, starting with the south wall, as their uncle carved steps leading down for entrance to the structure.
Sunset saw a barrier wall all around the quarry and enough room inside the subterranean living quarters to sleep. They had made a wide stair section in the southwest wall to serve as an entry to the enclosure. Along the courtyard edges they built storage areas, each with its own cover, and a larger section fenced off for the animals with the same type of site-made bricks used for the walls. All of the supports and coverings made thick with the clay being excavated from the underground habitat.
When the rest of the group arrived with additional provisions, the domain had neared completion. A tour of the complex ensued, and each of the families chose which room they would inhabit. each of the enclaves had a basic central space and the people residing in them would need to create their own private sleeping quarters. They would share the food preparation and dining areas, complete with a brick-formed oven and a large table also made of the clay they had removed for the shelter.
The women set about making a large feast to celebrate their new-found freedom, bustling around and calling out chores for the younger ones to tackle. They baked several loaves of bread, fixed meats and vegetables aplenty, and even a rich dessert. All slept well that night.
The castle rested in the middle of the Western Lands, dark gray rock hard to miss in daylight, near impossible to see at night. White banners bearing the red image of a rearing griffin wafted from the turrets, though no breeze blew. All the lands knew the usurper residing there, and all equally feared him. Still, some openly defied him.
In a vast, dark cavern below the castle, a huge shadow moved to and fro. On the floor, a large stage could be seen by the light of a large brazier, yellow flames flickering and waving though the air seemed still and stale.
The shadow moved toward the door that led to the castle where he ruled the little fools. Many years ago, he had claimed the fortress, the lands and all the citizens of the Western Lands. Through the course of a year, he had their total devotion.
He had no difficulty taking possession of their minds, for they were just simple farmers and handymen, each working the trade of their fathers and teaching all they knew to their progeny.
He had most continue their routines, though he enchanted them and their descendants with the strongest desire to please him. Whatever it took. The more accomplished he claimed for personal services in their respective careers. Many of the youth showed impressive learning aptitude, so he had those to return for him to train for his own personal guards.
After a hundred years, he had the strongest armies of any lands, and could finally proceed with his plans to conquer them all. One by one, he would crush the holdings of those who still had the nerve to oppose him, and turn the people to his servants. He had renamed himself The Red Griffin long ago, and now the mere thought of him drove fear into the hearts of the mighty.
He found the means to see happenings fathoms away, even to send demons to do his bidding. Many stories circulated about soldiers, spies, couriers, occasionally even statesmen being attacked and killed by a ferocious beast none had seen before, and none had seen since.
As he paced, he kept glancing at the fire wavering slightly, as if watching for a happening of great portent. A bell tolled beyond the walls of the keep, the bong which marked mid-day barely echoing as far as the throne room and trickling to the ears of the Red Griffin.
He mounted the platform and raised his hands. He began mumbling a language none alive could have deciphered, head lowered, eyes beginning to glow with the same energy as the fire.
The flames and his eyes altered hue, from bright yellow to deep amber, seeming almost as hard as the stone which bore the same name. As the blazes contacted, two images appeared side by side. The grey background with snow landing on one in stark contrast to the bright sun reflecting off the other.
The one in the snow, being wrapped in a thick, black cloak, grey-furred lining whipping in the wind, hood pulled close and facial hair grown to a bushy deterrent to the temperatures, had pasty skin around his black eyes.
The other had dark brown, almost leathery skin. One could tell he considered himself superior, and his prominent nose, long, thin but for the flared nostrils, and sharply dropping to his upper lip only added to his veneer. His beard, trimmed short and thin, outlined his long face, giving it a sharp look, as if folded of parchment.
The only similarities between the two were their eyes. They looked coal-black from side to side. At first glance, one would think the sockets empty, until the reflected image before them showed the truth. Though no centers could be detected, those caverns, so absent of light, saw everything. The ears behind them were just as acute.
The topics consisted of progress reports, number of warriors, slave conditions and quantities, and readiness for battle.
When both in the glowing amber windows had finished, the Red Griffin cautioned, “The Æther could be hiding something from me. Be vigilant for the slightest sign, and send for me immediately.”
He waved his arms aloft and turned, even as the images evaporated. He paced across the daïs, his eyes seeing farther than the cavern. He had to figure out where the figure known as Barbarian would come from.
A month after the families and friends reunited, Shelar bore forth a son. The parents beamed with pride, naming the newborn Senus, meaning “serenity in the midst of chaos”.
A stoic child, Senus rarely cried; rather, grunts and one syllable utterances relayed his hunger or any other need.
Six months passed. All the families working together had completed their little underground village. One morning, Thelis went out to draw water from the well. When he didn’t return, Rangor sent Kentur to find him.
A yell echoed in from the courtyard, and the men scrambled for their weapons. They dashed in a group up the stairs into the open, ready to protect their home and families.
“Father, no!” Kentur tried to warn them before they emerged, but to no avail. In a deadly cloud, arrows rained into the pit, piercing each man multiple times.
The Nomads had been moving across the sands, double file at a leisurely pace, but interest piqued when the scouting slave came running back to inform them they found a small populace.
They’d spurred on, and the slave led them to the edge of the large sunken courtyard. A young man came out of the opening on the south wall, but a quick thinking archer silenced him before he could alert any who could be inside.
Of the 50 men, fifteen archers positioned themselves at the rim while seven descended into the excavation, pressing against the walls on each side of the stairway. Although they captured the next youth out, he called for help before they could stifle him.
Upon hearing a commotion inside, followed by the distinctive clang of weapons being gathered, the archers above drew and took aim. As the bodies emerged, against the warnings of the captive, lethal aim ended the lives of the seven men.
The prisoner had to watch as the men of his family and friends gasped their last, then felt the sting of the sharp blade held against his neck as it slid across, the warmth of his blood spewing out, and the cold left inside before darkness claimed his vision and he crumpled lifeless to the ground.
The leader of the Nomads motioned for those in the pit to investigate the habitat. From inside, the screams of the women and children echoed out before being forever silenced. When the invaders emerged, one carried a bundle, a small arm protruding and ineffectually beating at the man carrying it.
“A new slave to serve, my Lord; a boy,” the man said.
“Excellent,” the chieftain replied. “In a few years, he will be ready for training as a scout. Give him to one of the slave girls for now.”
Several of the others had re-entered the domicile, searching for supplies to replenish as well as valuables to sell or barter as needed. When the pillaging concluded, they resumed their trek across the sands.
On the southeastern portion of the Dead Forest, there survived a small patch of life. The only remaining remnant of the former beauty which had, once in its history, stretched the entire distance of the borders of both Grun and Doman on the north, claimed the Nosbent Mountain Range on the east, and the Shandan Desert for the other two.
Some of the sun’s rays still found their way through the thick, two-toned, dark green canopy to help the ground fauna stay a vibrant green. Lush vines grew across most of the ground, overtaking fallen limbs and looking as if it were a solid floor.
One figure sat in the midst, the sounds of the animals and insects singing to his honor. For numerous decades he went to that place to find peace for his deepest meditations. He had, in essence, become a part of the glade.
He had seen, a very long time ago, that the man going by the title of Red Griffin would be defeated only after his power ruled for a hundred years. “Only then,” he told Able, “will the power he has gleaned from Darkness be diminished enough for the One Of Portent to conquer him.”